Chel Wong is a Boston-based video game composter and sound designer. As a freelancer, she has worked on such titles as the music puzzler Kine, the Starfox-inspired Whisker Squadron, and the surreal adventure RPG She Dreams Elsewhere. Not only has she also helped run the Game Audio Boston group, but as a freelancer, she invests 12 hours a week into networking — everyone in Boston knows Chel!
In this podcast interview, Chel and I discuss the challenges in writing Kine’s modular soundtrack; where to find freelance work; how to establish oneself as an authority, and the value in giving away free advice; how to avoid burnout as a volunteer, and knowing when to step down; and her favorite genres to work in.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Chel Wong Audio
- She Dreams Elsewhere
- Whisker Squadron
- Game Audio Boston
- Games Industry Gathering (GIG)
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast episode number 118, for Wednesday, October 20th, 2021. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. On my other podcast, IndieSider, which I ran years ago, I had the opportunity to interview multiple musicians including Dren McDonald and Jonathan Geer. I love the soundtracks of games. In fact, if you were to ask me what kind of music I listened to nowadays, I’d probably say videogame soundtracks. It’s the thing that comes up on my iPhone shuffle the most often.
And yet we haven’t really had many opportunities to look at that aspect of game design on the Polygamer podcast, only on IndieSider. Also on IndieSider, I had the opportunity to talk to Gwen Frey when she was working on The Flame in The Flood, which was produced here in Boston by the company Molasses Flood. Gwen has since left Molasses Flood to create her own game called Kine. The wonderful soundtrack was created by today’s Polygamer guest, freelance composer and sound designer, Chel Wong. Hello, Chel.
Chel Wong Hi.
Ken: How are you today?
Chel: I’m good.
Ken: So my first question for you, Chel, is: you are an Ithaca grad; what are you doing in Boston?
Chel: So I was actually from this area. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Boston, and then I went to school in Ithaca. And then I started to get homesick halfway into my time there, and I came back, moved in back home with my family to do a year of nonprofit education, burned out really badly. And then I stumbled into Game Audio. I still live with my folks actually, as does my older sister. And so, the four of us have lived together pretty much our entire lives, though I hopefully will plan to move out in the next few years.
Ken: Awesome. So you have a bachelor’s degree in music, but you didn’t intend specifically to go into games when you studied that?
Chel: Yeah, so I was originally going to be a band teacher. So I majored in music education, and then I failed. I failed student teaching, which meant that I had to change my degree, so became a Bachelor of Music with an outside field in education, which means basically nothing. Then my choice was either to go for another semester or to graduate on time, attain my degree. I tried to do more education and get better at it. And then I came to terms of the fact that maybe I should stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole kind of thing. And then I was lost for the first time in like … Since eighth grade, I knew what I wanted to do. But then I found my way into Game Audio.
Ken: Wow! That is amazing. I mean, I assume that you have been playing games for a while —
Chel: Oh yeah.
Ken: What was the light-bulb moment where you said to yourself, wait a minute, I can take everything I’ve learned and apply it to this awesome medium.
Chel: I actually didn’t really write that much music. Before I started this career, really, I was playing games my whole life. Grew up on the N64 through GameCube and onward. I did have an NES, but then my dad threw it out, which is still really sad moment. And besides that, though, I didn’t really do much in terms of writing, but I found some people who needed some music. And so, I designed for a game they’re working on and I came across some videos by Akash Thakkar about how to freelance in Game Audio. And I was like, well, it’s either this or go to grad school for bass trombone. So I went all in. And so, what do I have to lose? And then fuck it. Here we are now.
Ken: That’s wonderful. And did you set out to be a freelancer or were you looking for full-time salaried opportunities?
Chel: I think early on in anyone’s career, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what you want to do, and you’re open to everything and you might have a rough idea of what you want your end goal to be. And so, I think every composer, more or less, starts out as a freelancer because there’s not really too many in-house positions. And the ones that there are that do exist, those are pretty competitive. So I wasn’t just going to be like, I’m going to be a composer for Riot Games right now. No.
Me, personally, I do like being a freelancer because I like a lot of the freedom of everything. I have narcolepsy, which mean working in school is a nightmare. And it’s always been something that made me really paranoid about working in an office space, because there’s a really bad stigma against daytime sleeping. And I didn’t know for a long time that I had narcolepsy. And so, people just assumed that I was lazy or I just stayed up really late, even though I didn’t. And so, with freelancing, I can just do that in my own time whenever.
No one cares if I work at 2:00 a.m. or if I nap at 3:00 or when I do things. So I mostly just work whenever I want to. I try and work basically six to seven days a week, but very few hours relative to normal work hour a day. I think freelancing is nice, because I also … It takes a while to get to a position where you feel like you have the freedom to pick your own projects and to do basically whatever you want. I mean, I’ve always had an amount of freedom. But now that I’m here in a more established position, I’m actually really thankful. And I plan on doing this for a while, until, who knows? Unless something comes around that makes me say otherwise.
Ken: It sounds like a musician starts their career similar to how writers do. They have to just do freelance pieces or self-publish until they build up a portfolio that they can then shop around.
Ken: Awesome. But it gives you that freedom, and especially even with those of us who are working fully remotely, especially during the pandemic, generally, you’re still working Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00. It’s not always a lot of flexibility there and you get to choose your own hours. Do they still add up to like 40 hours a week?
Chel: I think in general, I don’t work 40 hours a week. If you include all the work that I do outside of audio, then it might be. But in terms of pure audio work, it’s probably more like 20 hours a week. But there’s a lot of overhead, and I am a very ridiculous human being that I don’t think anyone should ever copy. But I network like 20 hours every week and 12 of those hours, if not, more are all on Friday. And I’m starting to slow down, finally, but it’s not sustainable. I don’t think it is. And so, I started to do less. But for a while, it was very much like 20 hours of networking every week.
And now it’s maybe more like 10 to 15, but sometimes 20. And there’s still a lot of other things, keeping up with clients, freelancing, promoting stuff. There’s just a lot of stuff happening all the time. And so, sitting in front of a DAW is more like 20.
Ken: And is the purpose of all that networking to find your next gig?
Chel: Yes. The cynical answer is, yes, the more people I know, the higher chance that I have of finding work. But I am also just extremely extroverted. And during the pandemic, I was, one, at a loss of how to find new gigs, and two, I miss hanging out with people. And so, I found this group that was a really great networking group that I made a lot of really good friends through. And it was just really wonderful. And I thought that this is just a really great way of meeting lots of new people. And I kept going every week and it’s now just once a month, which is sad.
But for a while, I would go every week and I’d be there the entire time. And people are like, you’re crazy. But there would always be regulars, and not everyone was there every week. But there was always people that I could reliably count on seeing and if I didn’t catch them one week, had to catch in the next week. And so, through this group, I made friends pretty quickly. And also, I just felt like it was really a great confidence booster and everyone was just so kind and supportive. So that was just a really great way of having a social group, as well as meaning people in the industry and and all of a sudden, more and more people are like, wow, you know everyone. And it just keeps going further and further and further.
Ken: So what does this networking look like during the pandemic? It sounds like you have some virtual meetups you attend, are you cold tweeting or cold emailing people?
Chel: I try to avoid doing that. I know some people get pretty frustrated. It’s definitely not always bad and some people are like, they get it and the composers are very respectful of like, I already have someone. Maybe me, I think it’s really hard to find work through cold emailing, though I do know that some people might find success. But I just try to be the first person that someone thinks about. And so, friends ask friends for help. And if you need something, who’s the first person that you think of? I want to be that person for a lot of people.
And I’m probably a lot more of certain people’s than many other … That didn’t make any sense. When composers have a niche community, they might be the first person that that community thinks of, and I found my community and that has been really helpful for me. I think that whichever community and how you find it and how you communicate and upkeep with that community is different. And before, I was one of the composers that was really known in Boston for just the dev scene because I was very regular at all the meetups.
But I didn’t necessarily have any of the work because I came into an already very established community. And even still, the community that I have joined now that I jive most with and spend a lot of time, a lot of these people have been around for a long time. And so, maybe … I don’t work with 99% of the people that I know and I’m friends with. But a lot of them at least are, they stand behind me and they have my bags and they’re willing to either recommend me to other people. Or maybe in the future, they’re like, hey, I have some availability, I actually can work with you. But mostly, I just have friends.
Ken: Which is a good thing to have, especially during these very isolating times. So this community that you’ve joined, is that Game Audio Boston that you’re referring to?
Chel: No. So this one is called the Games Industry Gathering, or the GIG for short. It’s definitely gotten bigger and bigger. And I know that they let in a lot of audio people more and more recently. But at the same time also, as much as I love my friends, it’s also exhausting to be every single audio person I know wanting to join it too. Because it is a curated group. And so, what’s really nice about it also is that it curates not just for roles that people have in the industry, but what country they’re from and gender and ethnicity. And so, that’s really nice to have.
But definitely, like Game Audio Boston was one of my very first communities. And I’m going to be stepping down at the end of this year because I’m unfortunately spread too thin. But for a while, that was a huge part of my journey, just learning and growing as a composer, not really knowing anything about writing or music production. I learned all that on the go. And so, Game Audio Boston was a huge help to me in my earlier years pre pandemic.
Ken: And tell us a little bit more about what Game Audio Boston is. How did you get involved with it? How did you get to be in this position where you now have to step down?
Chel: So Game Audio Boston is one of several meetup groups in the Boston GameDev area. We have the Boston postmortem, which is even older than the IGDA, but it’s the IGDA official Boston branch. We also have Boston Indies and women in gaming. And one of the groups is Game Audio Boston. And so, I would go to these events every last Tuesday of the month, and I would just sit and learn. But more than anything, I would get to know the people who were regulars. Unfortunately, running a meetup is very difficult. And some of the old organizers moved and they left.
Unfortunately, a very common thing for Game Audio people in the Boston area is that they all go to the west coast, and then all my friends are gone and they leave me. So then I ended up stepping up to help organize it. And two of our most senior members ended up leaving as well, and I became the most senior member. And I had to bring on like three other people. And now, I’m at a point where I have to step down because my life has started to change. And I guess I have a new chapter in my life where I have to step down from things that I’ve been a part of for a while.
And I’ll still be a member, I’ll still go to meetups, but organizing stuff is just … It’s just a lot of work. And all of a sudden, you find yourself scrambling. I feel like I’m not doing enough for my community. And so, someone else should take over.
Ken: I think attrition and burnout are very common, especially in volunteer organizations. I’ve been there myself. For you, personally, what does it mean to not have enough time? How do you know when you get to the point where it’s best for you to step down?
Chel: So I am bad at gauging things like that, because I’m wearing my self thin in a lot of different ways. There’s an infinite number of things one can want to do. And there’s only so much you can actually do in your own lifetime. There’s only so much that you can do in a week, in a day. And where you prioritize your time is important, but it is impossible to prioritize everything. And though I have a lot of friends, there’s definitely people that I spend more time with regularly and I try and keep in touch with other people. But I certainly can’t keep in touch with everyone all the time.
That’s just impossible. And so, between my work, between spending time with my partner and my family, and it’s just a lot of being pulled apart in different ways. And so, at some point, something has to give. And I find that Game Audio Boston was one of those things that, as much as I love and I’ve been a part of for a good number of years, I would always find myself scrambling to be able to actually do what I need to do for that group. And I’m like, I don’t think I can keep up with this anymore. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do it anymore in a sense. I’m going to step down, but I also run a charity album every year, and 2020s was 18 submissions, and in 2021, tripled in size to 54 submissions.
Chel: And I can’t do that alone anymore. I used to, but more things are happening in my life. And just the sheer size of participation, it’s just bigger. And so, when something like that happens, I have to bring on more people and then I have to get more help. And I have to give up some ownership of things. Something that I know that indie devs sometimes have a hard time doing, because it’s like their baby. But the more people you bring on, the more creative ownership you have to give to them. And so, I hopefully can get other people to help take on some of the workload and own it with me.
Ken: I think it’s great that you’re delegating like that and giving them the opportunity to create something new. I know a lot of organizations, they already have a mission and a direction, they’re just looking for people with hands to help execute. And that can be really boring for the people who are volunteering because they have their own ideas and they don’t get to input them. One of the things you’ve made time to do with your life is also you’ve been sharing free career advice on email and on YouTube, you’re establishing yourself as an expert. But you’re also giving away a lot of content for free. So what is the strategy there?
Chel: One, it’s hard, it’s stupid hard. It is stupid, fucking hard to break into this industry. And it is really easy to find yourself flailing around, not knowing anything. I definitely was in no position where I didn’t know anything. And I learned it all on the go. I partially want to help pay things forward. I want to help teach other people the things that I’ve learned. And I learned from a lot of really great people too. And some things I learned on my own, and some things I learned, but they don’t quite work for me, and it’s just a matter of a different way of teaching people, I suppose.
And so, I want to make sure that, one, as a discipline, Game Audio as a discipline, I want people to make sure that they are not exploiting themselves, that they are able to sustain themselves, and they can be happy. Because I am not able to hire all of my friends. The truth of the matter is, is that we can collaborate, but we more often than not don’t, unless it’s for certain things and the budget of a certain size. And so, I want to be able to help my friends in different ways, and one of those ways is to help them help themselves through business knowledge and practical tools and all sorts of things like that.
I do, at some point, in the future plan on building a paid freelance course where I will be a lot more meticulous in the information that I give and how explanatory things are and a lot more in depth, and I want people to have good value. But I also maybe plan on, at least in the early days, giving some like, I guess, “scholarships” to marginalized individuals and help give them a boost in the industry because it’s hard. It’s really hard. So I don’t know. I guess, that’s my deal.
And on the more cynical side of looking at things like, yeah, yes, I am establishing myself as an expert and therefore I am more desirable as a hirable composer, I guess. Just people trust me more to know my shit, which I do. I mean, I get to help people. I think that that’s the most important thing and people say nice things.
Ken: Well, it sounds like even though you’re potentially fostering your own competition, you see that it’s a responsibility to make sure that the people who come after you have an easier time than you did. Is that right?
Chel: Yeah. And something that not everyone necessarily thinks this, and that’s okay. But when I was at GDC 2019 or 2018, Power Up Audio had a little hanging out round tably thing. I don’t know exactly. But one thing that they said was, there is enough work for all of us to succeed. There are so many games that come out every day. There’s so much out there that we can all succeed. And people trying to undercut others, people who do weird, shady, and scummy things, we don’t know where they are now. Because those people don’t last in the community.
And Game Audio people are, in general, really nice, really helpful, really just chill people. And it’s just a very kind community. And they’ve been really good to me. I don’t see any point in trying to hoard things, especially because I can’t do it all. I’m at a point where I’m actually at capacity. And when people come to me for wanting to work with me, I tell them that I’m not available until like 2022. Or that if maybe they do really want to work with me, I have a really high rate, not everyone can afford me. And if they can’t afford me, that’s fine.
I have a lot of other friends that are looking for work and that are maybe more in their price range. And so, at least I can pass things around. There’s never been a point where I could be a dragon and hoard all of the jobs. So why would I do that? I might as well just help other people because I don’t think I’ll ever be … If I am ever in a drought, I think at least what goes around will come around.
Ken: And it’s good that not everybody can afford you. Because if everybody could, then you’re probably not charging enough. And every composer has different availability, as you said, also different styles. And if somebody comes to you and says, hey, I need this music, you might say, that’s not really my jam. But I know somebody who is a good fit. And that reflects well on both of you.
Chel: Yeah, and I know everybody.
Ken: Because you spend 12 hours a week networking.
Ken: So let’s talk about some of the jobs you have worked on. How did you get connected with Gwen Frey to work on Kine?
Chel: I have a very big FOMO problem where I’m always paralyzed by the fear of missing out on things, which is definitely one of those things like, how do you know when to cut back? And unfortunately, I spread myself way too thin because I have really bad FOM. But with the meetup groups in Boston, like I said, they’re like five groups. And for a while, we didn’t even have a good form of communicating with each other and there was actually a really nice catalyst moment that united us all.
But before that, there were definitely a lot of more intermittent and sparsed meetups. There was one meetup … Normally, we meet in Cambridge. We had one actually in the Prudential Center at Boston, it was at the Microsoft Store. And at that meetup, I saw Gwen. And I saw her really briefly once before. She was pretty recognizable. And I didn’t know anyone. But I saw her and she was very quietly showing off a game to a couple of people. And it was a puzzle game, and it was music theme. And the stars aligned, honestly.
It was one of those moments where I just got really lucky. And I will never pretend that I wasn’t lucky. I am extremely lucky, and I still think I am to this day. But I also went to five meetups every single month. And I just happened to go to one meetup that she was also at. So that was how we met. I happened to be who she was looking for, and she happened to be … Well, she’s really great. She’s fantastic. And she has so much experience. And she was just really wonderful to work with and was really supportive and helpful to me, also learning and growing as someone new to the industry as well.
So that was my first game that launched. But I had a couple other games that I started working on before that, one of which I’m still working on, one of which was cancelled and it’s in limbo. But that’s just how it is.
Ken: Yeah. And I do want to talk about some of those other games, especially Whisker Squadron and She Dreams Elsewhere, but I have a few more questions about Kine.
Ken: With music being so integral to Kine, how did you decide what kind of music you want to implement?
Chel: So that was a conversation that happened pretty early on. And so, there are a couple things. I had an idea that I wanted the music to add on layers every time you beat a level. It didn’t end up 100% being that way because there’s 10 levels in a set of levels. And so, then it was like, okay, we’ll do like seven layers or something like that. And then there was a different thing that she wanted to make sure was true. And so, I originally wrote this song that I liked, but it was more on the quainter, lighter side of things.
And so, the biggest thing though was that she wanted the bass to be constant throughout the entire soundtrack. She wanted that when you went into levels, when you went out of levels, the baseline was always the same. I tried to give some push and pull in that, see if she would bite and she wouldn’t. Because it was integral to a math pun. As an animator, a lot of Kine is actually secretly math puns, and that’s our game. So she has a … But that meant that I had a really hard time making sure that all the music was over the same baseline.
And it ended up being a very modular thing. And so, that took some trial and error. Basically, what was my rough idea from the beginning and her caveat made Kine essentially a incredibly modular soundtrack for the entire game.
Ken: I’m curious for her previous game, The Flame in the Flood, the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, required viewing. Did you have to watch La La Land to work Kine?
Chel: So she love La La Land. I happen to see it. I didn’t watch it for her, but I did see the movie just as a regular viewer. I won’t pretend that the La La Land soundtrack was definitely a big factor in me like, okay, what do I do? I definitely had moments of what do I do, and the game is very influenced by that film. And so, one thing that I did is that, turns out, a lot of soundtrack has the same baseline and, well, it has the same chord changes. And so, I took the baseline from those chord changes and I worked with that. At some points, I did mess around with the chords here and there.
But I used those chord changes from Another Day of Sun. And I also want to make sure that I really cut my end of this gig and that I was able to meet her expectations. I was like, oh god, oh god, this is a really big gig. And I definitely would … Yeah, I used the chord changes from La La Land’s music. It’s like legal ceiling. People say, “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.” So yeah.
Ken: Yeah. When you borrow, you just are lifting at wholesale. But when you … I guess what the same means is when you steal it, you’re making it your own, you’re building on top of it, which is what Kine is all about, is layering on top of existing works, right?
Ken: So, with Kine having those layers and also as you described at one of your commentaries, being one mega modular song, was that easier or harder than just reading multiple distinct songs?
Chel: Oh my god, it was so much harder. It was so much harder. I’ll never do it again. I will never write a soundtrack quite like that. The biggest thing is, one, the loop had to be relatively short, because there was only so much material that I had. Two, every layer had to have a certain amount of activity every time, every amount of activity, every … Sorry, every layer had to have an amount of activity so that when it came in, it was noticeable. Or at least it was perceivable and even in a subtle way.
With that, also over the fact that it was all in the entire baseline was the same, that was really hard. And at some point, I started to run out of ideas. I think, for me, the first three songs I wrote are pretty great. And then the fourth song was like, what do I do? Because it was at a point where I ran out of ideas. But before I hit a point of ingenuity of solving my problems through weird ways, it was hard. So I will never do that, again. I still do an amount of layering. I did a different game that had an amount of modularity, but it was more fixed and it was a much smaller game.
That was many matches. And then now with Whisker Squadron, I’m doing two versions of each song. There’s a basic version where there’s the flight where you’re flying and then when you hit the boss at the end of the level, it goes into the boss version. And so, that’s two versions of one song, instead of it being eight layers of a single song of an entire … It’s like, oh, man, eight layers in a sub song and a song, song, I’ll never do it again.
Ken: But are you glad you did it?
Chel: Yes, I am very glad I did it. I definitely have critiques to myself about things that I wish I could have done better, things that I definitely think. As a player, one person … Honestly, I think that the loop is too short. And it’s really easy to feel like you’re losing your mind in this game. And that is a criticism that I have for myself, and I’m allowed to do that. But I also won’t pretend that what I did was what I do was hard and I think it was really cool. And I think it was very important to the game and in the presentation of it. And I don’t think anyone … Someone else might have done it. That would have been very different, but probably a lot of other people might not have. So I’m really happy and proud of what I’ve worked on and that …
Ken: Have you ever worked on a game where you said, there’s nothing I could have done better, that was the best I could have done. It’s perfect.
Chel: No, no, because that is … I think, as a creative person, there will always be … If anything, we’re more hypercritical of ourselves than everyone else’s. And there’s this strive for this fake perfection. I won’t pretend that I’m trying to be perfect, but I am trying to be better. I’m always trying to improve. And I’m always trying to do things better. I’m always learning and doing new things and trying out new stuff. And so, there’s always something that can be better because perfect doesn’t exist.
As long as you don’t want to get yourself down, I am always proud of the work that I do, even if I am very critical, some of the things that I’ve done. And also just as a practical person, I have deadlines and I have bills to pay and I have all sorts of stuff that needs to get done. And so, also as a professional, part of it is being able to compromise the perfection of the quality of everything, because there is a good enough and even … I won’t say that I’m phoning it in ever, but there are times where I’m like, I don’t have a spark of inspiration where a song just comes to me, and I write it all down.
I had those, and they’re great. But there are other times that I set the computer, I’m like, I have to brute force this fucker and get the song done and then move on to a new idea. Otherwise, I will be trapped in this forever and I will feel myself stuck in a rut and it will suck. And so, sometimes the songs are other people’s favorites and sometimes those songs are songs that people hear more often than some of my more favorite ones. But that’s just the life of it. And every time, it’s the matter of like, well, you got to move forward, you got to keep going, and you got to finish your contract so that you can take on new work. Because we wish we could do things forever and make it perfect, but fuck that. I have bills.
Ken: I think if you were given infinite resources, you would just never finish any projects because you’d always be improving them.
Chel: Yeah, that’s the trap of so many indie devs that are like, I have a dream game and I’m going to make MMO Dark Souls by myself. And you just get stuck doing things forever. And then at some point, you’re like, well, reality is catching up to me, and I have to pay my bills. And how do I pay my bills? Either through another job or I have to make this job make money. And so, I think also, as a freelancer composer, you just have to be okay with like, I have to be done, this is good enough. And it was definitely really easy for Kine to be like, ooh, but I could always tinker.
And at some point, Gwen got really busy. And she was mostly making this game largely on our own, but also at some point, managed to get the funding and hire contractors and had to do all this porting and talk to localization or whatever. And she launched that game on four platforms at the same time, which is ridiculous. And then stadia was one month later, and then switch was a year later. Or sorry, Steam was a year later. And so, at some point, I had to just be, I am done, this is done, I have to let it go and look for new things.
And during my entire time working on that game for two years, I was constantly looking for more work, but nobody knew me. So even the people that didn’t know me didn’t have any work for me. And you just got to keep hustling and bustling. And at some point though, the practicality of things like now, I cannot have that golden moment of like, oh, this is my first big project and blah, blah, blahd, and I got to make it perfect. No. I have things that I need to get done, and I have three games that I’m working on right now. And I’m just about to wrap up one thing and I have had a new thing that I need to get going. And I need to make sure that the client is happy.
Ken: That’s awesome. It’s great that you have so much work, and I see some upcoming work of yours that I’m very excited about, especially Whisker Squadron. I missed the opportunity to back it on Kickstarter, but I totally would have had I known because it looks like a spiritual successor to Star Fox, the original Star Fox. So what can you tell me about Whisker Squadron?
Chel: Whisker Squadron is made by Flippfly. They made Race the Sun about 10 years ago. That game has been sitting in my Steam library since I was in high school. And I just happened to get connected with Aaron over Twitter, I think, and we just got to know each other over time just through the internet more or less. And they are making a game that … Whisker Squadron, the shortest explanation I can give is roguelike Star Fox. And there’s a lot of different things. I can’t go into too much detail.
And honestly, there’s certain things just Gameplay wise that they’re constantly tinkering and changing things with it. I can’t really necessarily explain, but a lot of the levels have amount an procedural generation. And it has a system similar to Slay the Spire or I think maybe a feeling that if I played it, where you have different directions you can go to and you’ll get different choices. And maybe you can get some upgrades or maybe fly through this level, or maybe you have to go through a special zone where you’re not sure what’s going to happen in that. And so that’s what’s going on. And I’m doing music for it and additional sound design, which I am still figuring out how to make the cat sound like they’re talking.
Ken: So what would you say are … Other than getting the cast to talk, you had some significant challenges with Kine that you just outlined. What challenges are you encountering with Whisker Squadron? How is this game making you go outside your comfort zone?
Chel: Whisker Squadron has mostly … The cats talking is probably the hardest thing, and I haven’t touched it. And I’m planning on futzing about with it in the next few months. But basically, I’m actually really happy with the music that I’m writing because they weren’t entirely sure about what kind of music they wanted. And I wasn’t sure what kind of music I wanted to write for it. And we had a rough idea. And I wrote a theme for it, and they were really happy with it. And now I’m just writing song after song after song. And I have to write a second version of each song.
I mean, at some point, I’m like, oh man. I’m like, what ideas do I have and how I make this all sound like is from the same game? Because each game I work on sound drastically different from the one before it. I guess the hardest part would be like when I do start tackling the voice sound design, it’s going to be something that I’ve never done before. I did mess around with it and I posted a clip on Twitter, but I don’t think that’s the final product. And so, we are going to futz about with that. Honestly, I’ve been really, really, really happy working on that game. It’s just been such a pleasure. And the Flipplfy team, they’re so wonderful.
Ken: And when you say we are going to futz about it, what collaboration exists between the composer and the designer? Did they just give you some guidelines and then you work within those and then you pop up a month later and say, I’m done, here’s the soundtrack?
Chel: I am very communicative with people. And so, I tend to be like, here’s a rough draft, do you like it? Here’s a more developed version. Here’s the version with better instruments. Here is the “final” version. Just kidding, here is final version 1.01, just kidding, here’s final, so on, so forth. And so, I’m really active and I talked to the team a lot. That’s definitely not the case for everyone. For the sound design, well, definitely for a lot of things, because I’m not doing the implementation, it’s always the programmer that does.
And so, I have to leave very … Maybe too verbose of notes that are like, here’s what I want and how I want it to work and blah, blah, blah. And if that’s possible and if it’s not, then I guess what about this? And it’s usually just a little bit more wordy than it should be. With the sound design, I had an idea of having a bunch of cat meows chopped up and having an LFO to change the pitch up and down as they talk and having those randomly sequence, and that is a conversation that I will have to be much, much more back and forth with because that’s going to take a lot of iteration.
Ken: What is an LFO?
Chel: An LFO is a low frequency oscillator, which basically just means that if you have a pitch bend, the pitch bend will make it go higher or lower. And if it’s on an oscillator, aka a low frequency oscillator, it will go up and down, and ba da ba da ba da ba da ba da. That’s a really silly demonstration, but it just basically makes things go up and down. And you put the up and down on different things, whether it’s a pitch bender, which is what I’m using or anything really.
Ken: Well, that actually brings up a question, is what sort of tools do you work with when you are making your soundtracks? What’s your tech stack look like?
Chel: So I write, usually, first in MuseScore, I used to do Finale, but I fucking hate Finale and I will never go back.
Ken: What did you hate about it so much?
Chel: It’s just crap and it’s expensive and why did I pay for it.
Ken: And how long did you suffer using Finale?
Chel: Well, I got in like 2012, and then I started writing music professionally. And then, at some point, Finale just broke or … I don’t know. Something weird happened. And so, then I said, fuck it, I’m installing MuseScore for free. And so, I write my compositions in that. I export the MIDI. I import the MIDI into Reaper. And then I futz about and clean up the MIDI and I humanize it a little bit while I put on better instruments and then effects. And then later, at some point, I start to more seriously mix things.
And then at the end of all of the songs being done, I put all the individual stems. Because when my music is very layered or there’s a lot of different variations, I need to make sure that all the stems are roughly the same volume. And then I master it. And I think now that I’m in a position to be able to do that, I’m going to try and get my music professionally mastered by other people. And hopefully, get it to sound better than before.
Ken: You’re happy with the tech stack you have now, now that you’ve gotten rid of Finale?
Chel: Ugh, yeah. There’s always something. I definitely could be better about my optimization for how I use Reaper. I think my MuseScore writing is relatively optimal because I can do things pretty fast and I can get ideas much quicker than I can and a piano roll. Some people are really good at just recording MIDI in the DAW itself with a MIDI controller, like a keyboard. I have no space for a keyboard on my desk. And that’s one of those things that I think in the future I definitely want to futz about with to make things sound more human, to be able to have some of that live performer. But I also suck at piano. So I don’t know. It’s just a process. It’s come to be like my sound, I guess, over the years that I’ve been doing this.
Ken: What instruments did you grow up learning to play?
Chel: I am a bass trombonist. And I was pretty dang good at it in my prime, to the point where I thought I could pretend that I could be a professional, but I don’t know. I was good. I don’t practice anymore. I never practice, but that’s my thing. And I also am pretty good at all the other little brass instruments. But as a band teacher, I had to learn all the brass and woodwinds and the strings and the percussion and singing and basically everything.
Ken: That’s a lot. I never took band. I saw Mr. Holland’s Opus and I sang in a Glee Club. Those are very different experiences from actually what you were trying to do.
Chel: Yeah, you have to be … And one of the things for the degree that I had at Ithaca, which I still am fond on, for the most part, it was hard. You had to be a high school level adept, maybe more like middle school adept, but it’s more like high school level adept at each instrument and you had to learn them all. And then you had to take proficiencies to make sure that you actually learned them all. And you’ve had to practice them all. And it was hard. But you also had to practice your own instrument because of ensembles and your solo stuff.
So, I was a trombone player since fourth grade. I switched the bass trombone when I was 18. And that’s my instrument. I just don’t perform much anymore. I still like to. And I sometimes in my professional record for other composers. But now, I’m mostly just writing music and teaching people how to make money and teach them at investing.
Ken: Given the career you now have, is there a different degree you wish you had gotten?
Chel: So, at Ithaca, there was music education, music performance, composition, and sound recording technology. The latter two, composition and sound recording technology, otherwise known as SRT, those two would be more applicable to my life now. I am actually glad that I didn’t learn composition. Because I think if I went to a conservatory and learn the traditional ways of writing music, I would feel a lot more trapped and writing what I do.
And part of why I feel really happy doing what I do is because I feel uninhibited and I have a lot of theory knowledge that I simply am … I have only two brain cells to think. So while I know my theory, I only use it when I really, really need to. Or I hear something really cool, I’m like, how do I reproduce that? But mostly, I just go with what I think sounds good. And I’ve been playing music my entire life that I have a pretty good intuition for it. And I have really good oral skills that I got, that I developed through school.
But I do wish that I learned stuff about sound recording technology. Sometimes even basic stuff like wrapping microphone cables, I had to Google YouTube video how to do that. And there’s so much more like mixing and live recording and all that stuff. That would be really helpful now. So if I ever did go back to school, not that I think I will, I would probably learn how to do more about that sort of stuff.
Ken: If you were to go back to school, that would be a master’s degree?
Chel: Yeah. I mean, I definitely wouldn’t get a bachelor’s again. I would maybe get a master’s degree in learning more about production and mixing and mastering. But school is expensive and I am busy. So …
Ken: Those are both very true statements.
Chel: Yeah. I might just start to outsource some of this stuff because I can’t afford to at this point now, which is a really fortunate and lucky thing to be able to say because … I mean, I’m going to be honest, I’ve had years of grinding and being indie’s fuck. And my recording studio is a closet, and I had this whole setup where I trapped myself in my closet and threw a blanket over this weird cage that I stuck my microphone in and was trapped in my chair because I couldn’t get out of my chair. And I had to use a controller as my mouse and remotely arm and disarm the recording.
So I’ve gone through a lot of weird indie jank. But now I’m starting to be able to be sustainable and outsource stuff like maybe even mixing. But I definitely still do a lot of mixing on my own. But I think I’ll start to outsource mastering and a lot of live performance. I can hire my friends to do some saxophone or guitar or whatever.
Ken: But you wouldn’t be hiring them because they’re your friends.
Chel: Who is the first guitarist I know? I know a lot of guitarists. Who do I know that does this? Who do I know that does that? So I get a chance to pay my friends.
Ken: But they’re also good guitarists, that’s why they get the job.
Chel: Oh yeah. I mean, I’m not going to ask someone to do something mediocre, really, when I can ask a different person who I also know that does it well. I mean, it’s also maybe a matter of what you get what you pay for. But I also believe that at a certain point, anyone can do the job. It’s just a matter of how much are they charging for it. I know a handful of guitarists. They’re all very good.
Ken: Excellent. So we’re coming up on time. I got just one or two more questions. One is that you worked on Kine, which is a music puzzler. You worked on Whisker Squadron, which is either a fight some or a shooter. You are working on She Dreams Elsewhere, which is a surreal adventure RPG. These are all very different genres of video games. Do you have a favorite one to work in?
Chel: It’s hard to say. I think part of why I love this career and I love my life so much now is I don’t think I’ll ever be bored because I am always challenged to try new things. And every time I hear people talk very passionately about their projects, my brain tinkers in words at all the ideas that are possible for these projects. When I first started writing music, I also didn’t know what genre to write. And so, one of the very first games I worked on called stratagem, there are like 16 different characters and I wrote 16 different themes.
And there’s rock and jazz and someone has a Disney song and someone else has drum and bass. And I basically was just fucking around and finding out with genres that I love. I’ve always wanted to work in a music game. I checked that off. I love puzzle games. I checked that off. So that was a really lucky thing to check two things off in my first game that launched. But I still really want to work on a fighting game, that I haven’t reached yet. And I don’t know. I don’t really know what is on the horizon. But I want to work with maybe like double eye studios, larger indies, and see what really cool stuff they come up with because there’s no shortage of cool fucking shit. And I want to work on those and discover the beauty of it all through it.
Ken: And hopefully make it even cooler for your contributions.
Chel: Well, yeah, hopefully.
Ken: That is awesome. I love your ambitions. I love your talent. I love that you’re sharing so much both within the industry, with veterans, and with newcomers like. I just think everything that you’re doing is fantastic. And for those who want to follow you and all your work, where can they find you online, Chel?
Chel: My website is chelwongaudio.com, that’s C-H-E-L-W-O-N-G and then audio. I also have a Linktree, which is linkedtr.ee/chelonaudio. That has basically everything. I’m also very active on Twitter, not so much on Instagram and that’s still @chelonaudio. So through my Linktree and my website, you can find everything, all my social media, my YouTube, my newsletter that I give more free advice for up and coming composers to not exploit themselves. I’m everywhere, honestly.
Ken: And what’s the next thing that’s coming out featuring your work?
Chel: Whisker Squadron and She Dreams Elsewhere are both on the horizon. They should be launching in 2022. I don’t think there are set dates for either of those, so don’t hold me to that. But I also have something else that I’m not allowed to talk about. And so, eventually, I’ll be able to say, hey, I’ve been working on this thing. But those three are what I’ve been working on right now, and the two that I mentioned are the public projects. So expect some more credits from me in 2022 and moving forward.
Ken: Awesome. There’ll be links to all those in the show notes, including links, visit steam wishlist for both of those games in the show notes at Polygamer.net. Chel, thank you so much for your time.
Chel: Thank you so much for having me.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog or send feedback at polygamer.net.